London: Unabashed Food Hedonism

I spend most of my year cooking home grown food or foraged wild meat and fish at home on North Uist, therefore, when we do get away for a trip, there tends to be a focus on eating the best food we can access/afford wherever we head. This could be Michelin star dining; The Kitchin and Martin Wishart in Edinburgh being our two Scottish favourites, or, as in our trip to London this week, more relaxed, less austere and affordable eating experiences.

I love cooking and preparing food but even I need a break from cooking from scratch on a daily basis. The perfect antidote to ‘Cook’s Fatigue’ is to recharge the batteries with a visit to London, one of my favourite cities in the world and, of course, I had accumulated a list of places I had to eat and some foody items I had to purchase while there. Some of you who read my blog will not be surprised to learn this predictably included a visit to Ottolenghi and Wahaca but this also extended to indulging in some street food and Portuguese food nostalgia, both of which I have been dreaming of for some months.

Bear with me, this is inevitably a long post, so feel free to cut to the chase of the tagine recipe.

Our reason for visiting London was primarily work-related in that The Man Named Sous, (elevated to his real name Eric for this post, given the redundancy of his nom de blog for our London trip) was displaying instruments at the British Violin Making Association annual violin makers event.  I was certainly required as a porter for the event, as we arrived from Edinburgh by train with various instruments including cello, violin and viola.

He had been working very long hours to finish a new cello for this event and another last week in Glasgow where it and other instruments he made were played in the Violin Makers Scotland showcase concert at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. So new is the cello, pictures of it have been posted in his Facebook page, but have not yet made to his website, Eric Jackson Violins (shameless plugging here, but I am proud of his skill to produce very fine instruments as well as his commitment to his profession).

The event at Old Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green was a success and it was good for both of us to catch up with people we had not seen for a few years, such as flatmates Eric shared a house with while studying at the Newark School of Violin Making. After the event, we had a few pints in the delightful The Crown Tavern across the road from the venue with violin maker and musician pals and rounded the night off with a curry at Cafe Saffron, Aylesbury Street, which was excellent, good value and service too.

We were staying at a friend’s flat in Highgate, North London, except our friend was not there but in transit back from Algiers, although we did make the acquaintance of his Hungarian friend also staying at the flat. It was nice to be able to spend time with him of an evening, exchanging tales of London, Hungary and the Hebrides, and he also cooked us up a fine Hungarian Goulash as well as kindly gifting me some Hungarian sweet paprika, which I had long ran out of, but used to pick up when I worked in Hungary during my PhD.  I included some of this distinctive spice in my tagine recipe at the end of this post.

paprika

After so much intensity and immersion in the violin making world, we delighted in spending a couple of well-earned days snatching time to explore some of London’s culinary and cultural offerings, although, must it be said it was a bit manic, cramming as much in as we could in so little time.

Street food is currently very much in vogue in the UK and the best place to find a diverse selection is London.  We had heard about the Moroccan Soup Stand in Golbourne Road, which recently won a BBC Radio 4 Food Award. I then read a great post by Craig at Mad Dog TV Dinners, who has great local knowledge of the best markets to visit in London.  He wrote an inspiring and enlightening post about Golbourne Road where I learned about the Portuguese community and associated shops there. Thanks to Craig for the info, his comprehensive post should be read in conjunction with this one to get the full flavour of the experience.

This made a visit to the area mandatory as I was in need of some Portuguese food nostalgia after my recent post about living in the Algarve.  On arrival at Golbourne Road, we found Lisboa Patisserie first (don’t know why it isn’t called Lisboa Pastelaria), so we had to start our afternoon with coffee and pastels de nata.  These were the most authentic I have eaten in the UK. Delicious crisp flaky pastry layers, perfect deep wobbly but steadfast custard within and a deep dark caramelisation on top.  One would never have been enough, and had I not been planning to visit the Moroccan soup stand further down the road, I could have eaten a third!

pastel de nata

The award winning Moroccan soup stand was next. It wasn’t excessively busy and we got a table and were quickly served by the very friendly and helpful proprietors. I had Bissara (green split pea) soup and Eric had Harira.  It was lovely to sit outside sharing a table with Portuguese customers on a beautifully clear crisp afternoon. The soup was really delicious and we decided to go for a tagine next, opting to share a chicken one. Needless to say it was delightful and came with bread to mop up the deliciously aromatic gravy.  A bargain for such authentic cuisine at £6.00.

tagine

Afterwards, we naturally gravitated towards the unmistakable smell of bacalau (salt cod) emanating enticingly from the Lisboa Deli.  I wanted to buy some to take home as it has been many years since I have eaten it and I don’t know of anywhere in Scotland that sells it. At the back of the shop, in a room dedicated to bacalau, stood a stack of huge sides of dried cod so loved by the Portuguese, next to a bandsaw on which my kilo of bacalau was cut for me.  Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of this unique set up. I bought some other nostalgic items including quince marmalade and chorizo, becoming aware that if I bought much more, we would not be able to carry it home, given we were already laden on the way down, and I had not yet visited other shops in the street.

As it was, by the time we got to the end of the block, we had bought olives, harissa, an array of herbs and spices and a large bag of rose petals.  We just had to and would worry about how we would carry the stuff back to Scotland later.  We had a fantastic relaxing afternoon in Golbourne Road and I will certainly be returning for supplies and great food next time I am down in London, not to mention to buy a tagine dish, which I simply couldn’t carry this time.

Later that evening, we dropped in at Wahaca at Covent Garden for some Mexican tapas and cocktails.  The restaurant had been recently refurbished and was vibrant and friendly.  We enjoyed a couple of margharitas – the passion fruit version was great, along with a snack of fennel pork scratchings with guacamole, lovely, although I didn’t sense much fennel.  We shared a small selection of tapas dishes including chicken tinga tacos, chicken guajillo tostadas and chipotle chicken quesadillas, then realised everything we ordered contained chicken!.  I also ate them before I realised I should have perhaps photographed them (oops!). Pretty tasty they were too, and surprisingly, not too hot.

wahaca snacks

We could not leave London without a visit to Ottolenghi, but rather than going for lunch or dinner, we opted for brunch at Islington.  As readers will know, I adore the Ottolenghi ethos, flavour combinations and recipes.  Although Ottolenghi sits on a pedestal as high as The Shard, I was not at all apprehensive that a visit may not live up to my expectations.  In fact, the experience was indeed sublime and the food, service and experience utterly flawless.  We both opted for shakshuka.  It had enormous depth of flavour and the perfect balance of heat and richness while still allowing the flavour of the egg yolks to shine through.  The labneh was a a perfect foil to the warmth and richness of the peppers and tomatoes.

shakshuka

This was served with a perfect cappuccino, one of the best I have had in London (no mean feat since we always seek out the best coffee shops, especially those revered NZ places in Soho).  A second cappuccino accompanied the grand finale of the famous Ottolenghi cakes.  It took us a considerable time to choose, the selection was mesmerising.

Otto coffee

otto cakes

In the end I went for a passion fruit meringue tart. In truth, I can’t resist anything containing passion fruit.  I was not disappointed.  This was genuinely one of the best cakes I have ever eaten. Crisp light pastry, oozing passion fruit custard with the perfect balance of sharpness to match the uber light and not too sweet soft, delectable meringue. I was smitten.  Eric chose the rhubarb and ginger cheesecake, which was gargantuan and delicious.

otto meringue

meringue open

otto cheesecake

The display of salads looked so enticing and if there was anyway I could have squeezed in another mouthful, I would have tried some.  At least there’s an excuse to return next time we are in London.

otto salads

In order to recover from our brunch, we visited the Courtauld Gallery to see the ‘Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901’ exhibition.  This was a wonderful opportunity to see a unique exhibition reuniting major paintings from his debut exhibition. Picasso was only 19 years old and this prolific year of his life shaped his future career, notably in the second half of 1901, when Picasso quite radically changed the direction of his work at what was the beginning of his now famous Blue period.

Picasso is undoubtedly one of my favourite artists and when I visited the Picasso museum in Paris over 20 years ago, his work left a huge impression on me. I feel very fortunate to have viewed so many of his early works in one place. It was delightful to see the steps of transformation before the progression to his most famous works which went on to define him as one of the most important artists of the 20th Century.

No visit to London is complete without an afternoon/evening in Soho. There is always a great buzz and an enormous choice of great coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Top coffee shops include Flat White and Sacred, where we stopped for a cappuccino.

We stopped by at Fernandez and Wells to indulge in some charcuterie and prosecco choosing a three meat platter for £12, consisting of Limoto Iberico de Bellota, Schiena (an Italian version of speck from Trentino) and Cecina de Leon (beef air cured and oak smoked, an interesting alternative to bresaola).

fenandez and wells

charcuterie

Of course, we always dwell for a while in The Crobar. This small, friendly bar is well known in rock and metal circles and has the best classic rock and metal jukebox you will find nowadays (I just realised I make myself sound very old by adding the word nowadays). Everything from classic thrash like Slayer to contemporary heavyweights Mastodon as well as classic and some stoner rock is blasted out.

Staff and patrons are very friendly and it has an exceptionally long happy hour. On arrival, we were deliberating about what to drink and the barman asked where we were from.  ‘Scotland’ we stated blandly and generically.  Turns out he was from Dundee and gave us the rather weird shots we chose on the house.  It is also one of these places that occasionally attracts rock stars and journalists. The night we were in, legendary rock journalists Malcolm Dome and Jerry Ewing were standing at the bar.  I would never have noticed, but Eric has a brilliant memory for names and faces, especially anyone related to music or film.

Crobar

We eventually caught up with our friend, who returned from Algeria sans luggage and had himself been so busy on return, we had only a few hours to see him and his partner (also a friend) for dinner at her home in Kentish Town before we returned to Edinburgh next morning.  It was great to catch up with them and hope we can reciprocate when they visit our Hebridean home.

Lamb Tagine

Inspired by our visit to London and pulling together some experiences from the Moroccan Soup Stand, Portuguese cooking, visit to Ottolenghi and my Hungarian paprika gift, I made this tagine while visiting my parents on our return from London.  The lamb shoulder was purchased from an excellent local butcher. The preserved lemons included in the recipe were some I made and gave to my mum as a gift at Christmas and are so simple and easy to make. I serve this with Portuguese broa bread, my recipe described in a previous post.

Ingredients

600g lamb shoulder, diced

2 onions

5 small tomatoes

skin of 1/2 a preserved lemon, chopped

2 bay leaves

large pinch of saffron

60g dried apricots

80g green olives

600 ml vegetable stock

400g waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks

40g toasted flaked almonds

1 400g tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

For spice rub:

1/4 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground all spice

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1/4 tsp ground turmeric

3 green cardamom pods, contents ground

1/4 tsp Hungarian sweet paprika

1 tsp harissa

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

salt and pepper

1 tbsp olive oil

Method

  • Combine all the ingredients for the spice rub with the oil and rub into the lamb pieces.  Leave to marinade for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
  • Add a splash of olive oil to a casserole dish and brown the pieces of lamb.
  • Remove the lamb and add the onion, soften and caramelise slightly.  Return the lamb to the casserole dish or place both in tagine, if you have one.
  • Add the tomatoes, saffron, olives, bay leaves, apricots, chick peas and vegetable stock.  Slow cook in a low oven about 150C for 2 1/2 hours, add the potatoes and preserved lemon with one hour to go, scatter the toasted almonds over the top and serve with bread and /or salads.

tagine

Amaretti biscuits – solace for the coffee geeks

I am always seeking the perfect biscuit to accompany coffee and amaretti always come out on top as the ultimate combination, whether your preference is cappuccino, espresso, flat white or americano. I have made several batches of these particular amaretti biscuits over the festive period. The recipe comes from the delightfully delicious Ottolenghi cookbook. It did not mention in the recipe that they evaporate if left unsupervised for even short lengths of time, but every time I turn my back they are gone!

This is a very simple and easy recipe that is a refreshing change from the traditional amaretti.  These have a perfect zesty twist, are crunchy on the outside and slightly gooey in the middle.  I replaced the sour cherries cited in the recipe with dried cranberries.  This is only coincidentally seasonal since I had no sour cherries.

Cranberry Amaretti

Ingredients

180g ground almonds

120g caster sugar

grated zest of a lemon

3 drops of natural almond extract

pinch of salt

60g dried cranberries, roughly chopped

2 free range egg whites

2 tsp honey

icing sugar for rolling

Preheat oven to 170C

Makes about 20 amaretti

KitchenAid - a delight after the absence of a mixer following the demise of my grandmother's1960's Kenwood Chef that I inherited.

KitchenAid – a delight after the absence of a mixer following the demise of my grandmother’s 1960’s Kenwood Chef.

Method

  • Put the almonds, sugar, lemon zest, almond extract and salt in a bowl and mix.
  • Beat the egg whites and honey to what Yotam calls soft meringue consistency.  I beat them until moderately stiff as they fold in and hold more air with a slightly firm consistency. Beating the egg whites can be done by hand or using a food mixer, which I used. (my new KitchenAid – Christmas present to self after the recent demise of my Kenwood Chef).
  • Fold the egg mix gently into the dry ingredients to form a soft paste.
  • Take a small amount of mix and roll in your hand and then in some icing sugar before placing on silicone/parchment on a baking sheet.  I rolled these to the size a bit smaller than a walnut, otherwise they are too big to cook sufficiently inside.
  • Bake for 12 minutes, let them cool and indulge.

Cranberry amaretti

Cranberry amaretti

The (temporary) demise of fine coffee 

Something that strikes fear in the heart of any coffee geek is the loss of the beloved daily dose of quality espresso and cappuccino.  We are both geeks that find it impossible to live without at least a few quality shots per day.  Someone recently asked me if I had to live without red wine or coffee, which would it be.  I would ditch the wine without question, as would The Man Named Sous.  So, you can probably tell, our appreciation of coffee is serious.

We have fantastic, so-called ‘Prosumer’ machine, an Izzo Alex Duetto II, Italian engineered, a dual boiler machine with tight temperature and pressure control to provide consistently excellent shots. It also has stunning Italian styling, as one would expect.  Hold on, I need to go back a phrase or two. Italian engineering.  This is essentially where the problem lies.

I do not want to suggest that sometimes such products can be style over substance – this is certainly not the case for our much-loved coffee machine, but the experiences we have had with this machine are a stark reminder of the ‘temperamental’ nature of Italian engineered goods, in our experience.  I am thinking principally of a beautiful Ducati 851 sports motorbike owned by The Man Named Sous.

The Ducati looked and sounded wonderful – bright red eye-candy, an elegant and slick single-seater, compared with my equivalently pointy (but reliable and faster) Japanese brute (a Kawasaki ZXR 750). The problem was, the electrics on the Ducati never worked for more than one run. Lights and dials failed regularly, and with no reserve tank (very practical) and no odometer, each journey distance had to be calculated out to make sure there was enough fuel to get home. The electrical issues with our Alex Duetto II make it only slightly more reliable than the Ducati 851, although at least you won’t have to push it home.

Alex Duetto II Review

Alex Duetto II, the Ducati 851 of coffee makers?

Our Alex Duetto II, the Ducati 851 of coffee makers?

The machine is well crafted and made of heavy grade mirror finish stainless steel, inside and out. It is manually operated with a lever, which is a bit more interactive than a push button electronic set up.  It also allows simultaneous use of the steam wand while pouring a shot, thanks to the double boiler, a feature that very few home machines have.  The steam wand produces a powerful jet of steam so milk frothing takes a bit of practice to get it under control and to produce the desired microfoam. The machine has a water reservoir or can be plumbed in.

However, despite its good looks and flawless coffee production performance, alas, we have had a few issues with the electronics of our Alex Duetto.  A failed PID unit (this key component does all the temperature/pressure control) after about 18 months, fortunately within guarantee this was replaced by Bella Barista, the company who we bought the machine from.  At Christmas 2011, the temperature probe failed, so we had no coffee until the part was ordered after the holiday.  On Christmas morning just past, a similar fault has occurred, which we suspect also to be a result of the probe failing, so again, we are in an espresso desert until there is time to resolve the issue.

Diagnostics for this machine would not be possible without the engineering background of The Man Named Sous who has capably and confidently found each fault, removed the faulty part and discussed technical solutions with Bella Barista, who have offered a great service throughout.  We are very fortunate to have this skill in the house because sending the machine back for repair would be very costly – it weighs a mammoth 35kg.  I’m not sure how the average punter copes with maintaining this machine if living a remote area. The machine was also a serious investment and the current Alex Duetto IV model costs about £1900 – and that’s before investing in an equivalent quality grinder.

It took several months of committed research by The Man Named Sous as he indulged in his passion for techno-geekery, weighing up the pros and cons of just about every available machine on the market before settling for the Izzo. There is no doubt in our minds that we chose the best machine on the market for home use.  Despite these niggling issues, owning the machine is a delight, and judging by other reviews, I think we have been a bit unlucky and very few issues have been cited.

Although it makes producing a good shot as easy as it could be at home, it took about a year to really get to grips with producing A1 quality espressos and cappuccinos, taking into account grind adjustments and the differences in different coffee varieties and blends, moisture content of batches of beans, etc. We have had very helpful tips from the staff at Artisan Roast, Bella Barista and have found really invaluable online demonstrations to help us get it right.

We currently buy freshly roasted beans sent mail order, 1-2 days post-roasting.  We usually opt for single source but also like to try blends.  The plan is to start roasting our own green beans and experimenting with our own blends later this year, but we need a shed to accommodate a roaster – not something you want to do in the house, but can’t wait to start experimenting with roasting.

Amaretti and cappucino - when the Alex Duetto was opertaing smoothly.

Amaretti and cappuccino – when the Alex Duetto was operating smoothly.

Edinburgh: A quartet of reviews – breakfast, lunch and dinner x 2

I have just returned from a short work-related trip to Edinburgh, which meant spending Monday and Tuesday evenings in our illustrious capital. With one eye on quality and the other on maximum gain for my gelter, I had a quick location-based web search the night before to seek out some well reviewed city centre eating options around the area I was staying (Waterloo Place).

Of course, it’s not possible to fly direct from Benbecula to Edinburgh, so I had to first fly to Glasgow.  The flight was a tad bumpy on the descent. The small Saab prop creaked as a result of pitching, rolling and yawing in the crosswind. Not even Margaret Atwood could distract me from the buffeting as we passed through squally showers. This was primarily because it was literally impossible to read while being thrown around at the mercy of the turbulent conditions. I was attempting to re-visit the first two books of the Oryx and Crake trilogy in preparation for the third, Maddaddam, to be published in 2013, according to Atwood on Twitter.

Safely planted on the tarmac in a driech Glasgow, by the time I caught the shuttle bus to the city centre and then train to Edinburgh, my stomach had recovered enough to seek out food.

Breakfast – Broughton Delicatessen, Barony Street

I had by choice opted for room only at my hotel.  I am not a fan of cooked breakfasts and the cost for hotel breakfasts is very high if you only want a bowl of muesli. Being in the city centre, it seemed more fun to check out Trip Advisor and go on a local foraging expedition.  Broughton Delicatessen also has the added advantage of being very close to Edinburgh’s best coffee shop, Artisan Roast.

I arrived pretty much bang on the 8am opening time as I had to get across the city centre in time for a meeting and knew I needed time to dodge the tram chaos.  Staff were faced with their first customer of the day, and were ready to go.  The coffee machine was already warmed up.  I ordered Broughton deli granola, served with greek yoghurt and fruit compote and an americano.  Disappointingly, they were out of fruit compote but offered me bananas and blueberries as substitutes.  I don’t like bananas but opted for the blueberries.

It was a pretty huge bowl with a high yoghurt to granola ratio.  The yoghurt was very good quality, thick, rich and acidic.  The granola had plenty honey flavour but I just didn’t feel there was enough of it to balance against the volume of yoghurt.  The blueberries were fine, but no substitute for a fruit compote which would have added moisture, sweetness and made the bowl complete. Had there not been a compote deficit, the £3.95 price tag would have been fine.  This would not deter me from returning.  The ingredients in the chiller looked appealingly fresh and high quality as did the advertised selection of rolls and salads. I need to return to revisit the compote if nothing else.

An added benefit was walking across the road for a cappuccino courtesy of the wonderful Artisan Roast.  I tried a take away this time and was not disappointed, as it was presented and tasted as per a sit-in cup and kept me going as I dodged my way along the tram mess and chaos of Queen’s Street toward the west end.

Good news for Artisan Roast is that today they have received a much deserved accolade as best cafe in the UK, so well done to the knowledgeable and passionate staff therein.

Lunch – The Edinburgh Larder, Blackfriar’s Street

This unassuming deli, with a reputation for fresh seasonal Scottish produce sits at the top of Blackfriar’s Street, a stones throw from The Royal Mile.   Once you have made it past all the kilted, bagpiping haggisy whisky-ness and tartan tat that accost you on approach from The Royal Mile, the atmosphere within is honest and relaxed.

Amazingly, and perhaps fortuitously, despite its proximity to The Royal Mile, this deli does not appear to particularly attract tourists. Tourists seem to exhibit the legionary behaviour of army ants, raiding en masse, focussing their column raid along the Royal Mile with all the urgency of a legion that has just scented its next meal of haggis and neeps.

The place wasn’t too busy, so I sat myself at a table, had a look at a couple of specials marked on the blackboard and tried to catch the eye of the staff, however, I did eventually have to get up and ask for a menu at the counter.  The male behind it was engrossed in texting on his mobile and hadn’t noticed me come in.

I asked for a menu and about the availability of the specials.  I got a very blank look and then a ‘sorry, err, um, pardon?’ I instantly recognised that this well-heeled Hugh Laurie pre-House chap was not coping with my perfectly polite but local (well, central Scotland) accent.  This has happened to me once or twice in London, but it is rare. Ironically, I never had trouble being understood while working and living abroad, in fact many of my Portuguese friends developed my accent while speaking English!  I would have liked to have seen him exposed to the Glesgae banter….

Having repeated my questions (painfully) slowly,  ‘Can-I-have-a-menu-please?’ and ‘Are-the specials-still-available?’ We seemed to be getting somewhere and I retreated to my table to await the menu.  I’m not sure if Hugh was then trying to avoid me, but another employee was sent over with the menu.  He approached with all the stealth of a ninja.  Steely and silent.  Perhaps more alarmingly, it was a very ‘Smell of Reeves and Mortimer’ Lloyd Grossman Masterchef style approach (minus the cutlery for fingers). Without uttering a sound, he laid a menu in front of me on the table and retreated to the safety of his counter.

Although the menu was a bit grubby, dog-eared and faded, the contents were appealing.  Phew!  Although, having glanced at the menu online in advance, the prices were somewhat out of synch with those online i.e. it was on average about a quarter more expensive than the website suggested. This is a small but important point because it has been hailed in the past as a reasonably cheap, good value place to eat, but at current prices, I would describe it as being reasonable value, not cheap.

I ordered a leek, potato and black pudding soup from the daily specials board and a half sandwich billed on the menu as ‘homemade smoked fish pate of the day’.  I had to again go to the counter to order, and qualified the fish in question was salmon.

Service was quick.  The soup was piping hot, rich, creamy and well seasoned with some nice chunky pieces of leek at the bottom and with a thin puck of black pudding  floating on top.  The sandwich consisted of very fresh malted granary bread with a perfect crust.  The filling however, was not pate as described but rather large chunks of smoked salmon on a spread of mayonnaise, a selection of fresh peppery leaves and some fresh dill. OK, clearly not pate, but it was very tasty so I happily ate it without raising the issue with the staff.  They should, however, have advised me it wasn’t pate today. At £6.50,  I think this light lunch was reasonable value.

Before leaving, I wanted to find out where they sourced their smoked salmon.  After repeating my question ‘Where-do-you-source-the smoked salmon-in-your-sandwiches?’ very slowly to Hugh, turns out he didn’t know, but The Ninja did.  Creelers (of Edinburgh, I assume).  I later found out online that Creelers in turn source their salmon from the Loch Duart salmon farming company, which coincidentally has operations around the Uists.   When it comes to Scottish farmed salmon, it’s a small world…

Dinner 1 – Howie’s, Waterloo Place

I chose Howie’s for 3 reasons. I had eaten in the Victoria Street restaurant on several occasions and enjoyed it (although admittedly this was probably over 10 years ago now). The menu was appealing and the early evening menu looked very good value.  Finally, it was convenient being right next to my hotel.

The place was quiet when I arrived, with only one or two tables occupied.  I was in time to eat and leave by 7.30pm, a requirement of the early dining menu which was my choice.  Two courses were offered for £14.95.  Service was efficient and staff attentive.  I was advised that there would be a supplement for the rib-eye steak as a main and also that there was a special of roast pheasant (also with a supplement). I was offered tap water which came in a jug with ice, which was good. It was really quite dark inside, with most light being emitted from the tealights on the tables.  After squinting at the menu I ordered cullen skink as a starter and it arrived very promptly.

It was a good-sized portion and came with what was described as artisan bread.  The bread was OK, perhaps a bit nondescript. The skink was only just hot enough to eat, a fraction of a degree colder and I would have had to send it back.  The texture was good with each piece of smoked fish (species undescribed in the menu) chunky and identifiable, likewise potatoes and leeks. The broth was thick enough but it did lack a bit of seasoning and the general depth of flavour and smokiness I would normally associate with cullen skink – the element that makes the dish so comforting and appealing.

On to my main course billed as ‘venison leg steak with fondant potato, seasonal greens, juniper and bramble sauce.’  Choosing venison in a restaurant has been the subject of much discussion between myself and The Man Named Sous. As our most consumed red meat at home, we have become adept at cooking it and more importantly, serving it just the way we prefer it. As a result, I have been advised many times over ‘Just don’t be tempted to order it, you will be disappointed’.  Yet knowing this while staring at the menu didn’t stop me from doing so.  It wasn’t sheer devilment that made my choice.  There was a lure I couldn’t resist – the offer of fondant potato.  I’m not a huge lover of potato, but a good pomme fondant is a wickedly decadent triumph.

A very high plate of food was presented with a substantial sea of surrounding gravy.  In the gloom, I was trying to figure out what was going on the plate because I couldn’t see the pomme fondant, which made my heart skip a beat.  I deconstructed the tower.  It was topped with curly carrot shavings, which I assume had been deep-fried, but they were a bit soft.  Underneath a substantial layer of several slices of venison leg meat sprawled.  Lying somewhere between the venison and carrots was some kale, a pleasant surprise.  Finally, pushing the veg and meat off the tower, I revealed the pomme fondant.  It was gargantuan and I very quickly became  suspicious that this was an imposter masquerading as my dream tattie dish.

Venison tower deconstructed in the dark with pomme conglomerate

A quick prod with my fork revealed the stark reality.  I tried not to visibly recoil.  This was not as described but a conglomerate of several potatoes set into a ring or formed into a cake.  Crushed potato cake would be a better and more accurate description.  I am not a fan of crushed potatoes and I felt robbed. Pomme fondant should be made of one single piece of sculpted potato. That aside, some pieces were cold and a bit hard and the whole potato component was underseasoned.

Moving onto better things, I tried the venison. The portion was very generous and it was nicely cooked overall being rare and tender. The flavour was good and although the species was not identified on the menu, I assumed it was red deer (confirmed later by my server who checked with the kitchen as she did not know). Unfortunately, there was a bit of sinew around the edges of a couple of slices, which was a pity. It was a little insipid around the edges too and would have benefitted from a bit more browning and seasoning.

Unfortunately, the juniper and bramble sauce was disappointing. Texturally, it appeared to have had a thickening agent added late in the sauce-making process as it was gloopy and may account for the lack of depth of flavour and seasoning.  I regularly use both juniper and/or bramble in game sauces and I know it can be difficult to get the right balance as both can overpower.  In this case, neither did.  There was no hint of juniper infusion and only the slightest tang of fruit acidity that I presume came from bramble. It was a mere pale spectre of the powerful winey hedgerow berry flavour I anticipated.

I felt quite sorry for Howie’s, and myself as I didn’t expect disappointment and it would be unfair to assume my experience is representative, given the generally favourable reviews on Trip Advisor.  If you want value for money, good service and you are not fussed on attention to detail, Howie’s may be an acceptable choice.  Sadly the let down of the faux pomme fondant and my familiarity with venison meant high expectations were unfulfilled. It was always going to be an uphill struggle for this dish to deliver in these circumstances.  Next time I will heed the advice and chose something else.

Dinner II – Mother India’s Cafe, Infirmary Street

I have been meaning to visit the Edinburgh cafe for a while.  How fortuitous it was and delighted was I when a colleague suggested our team go for a meal there after work. The Man Named Sous was less impressed with my plans as he had wanted to eat here last time we were in Edinburgh and I suggested somewhere else.  I have therefore committed to going to the Glasgow cafe with him in December. I promise.  What a hardship!

The restaurant offers tapas style Indian food and has a longer established sister cafe in Glasgow which has a formidable reputation for great food.

I arrived with an advanced party of 4, the rest of our group of twelve arriving in dribs and drabs.  This did not phase staff and our table was ready.  Staff were attentive and gave us the options of drinks, poppadums or starting to order while we waited.  Eventually, with everyone present, we ordered and despite the bombardment of information, staff coped impeccably with our orders. Service was swift without feeling rushed.

A long list of dishes are available with plenty veggie options and a daily special on the menu.  It is suggested that 4-6 dishes are shared between 2 people. With over 40 dishes on the menu, it was difficult to choose. Two of us opted to share and ordered 4 dishes between us as well as a portion of rice and a nan, which was the perfect amount for us.  The food arrived promptly and was piping hot.

Our order consisted of spiced haddock baked with punjabi spices, lamb saag (i.e. with spinach – hot!), chilli king prawns and the Tuesday special, vegetable thali.  Each dish was full of great contrasts of aromatic and pungent spices, plenty chilli and fresh herbs.

I had forgotten just how good Indian food can be and it was also incredibly good value at £16 each, including poppadums and chutneys and a drink each. Having always headed for the nearby excellent vegetarian Indian restaurant Kalpna previously, I have now doubled my Indian options in Edinburgh. I can’t wait to use the excuse of a promise to The Man Named Sous to visit the Glasgow Mother India’s cafe soon.

Homeward bound, eventually

After a quick pre- and post-work whizz around Edinburgh, time to return home.  Never anything but eventful, problems with planes meant my flight was delayed at Glasgow to accommodate some stranded passengers bound for Islay. Good old Loganair.  Can you imagine a budget airline re-routing a plane because passengers would have to wait another 4 hours for the next one?  Not on your life. So it was, our Benbecula-bound plane stopped off at Islay on the way.  A novel experience indeed.  Not least when we landed in Islay for the crew to discover one of the Benbecula passengers was missing and was thought to have got off the plane at Islay.

After much sniggering from the remaining Benbecula-bound passengers and a security check and baggage search taking 45 minutes, it turned out the passenger had not actually got on the plane at Glasgow. Stringent security?! The big bonus was that it was a beautiful cloudless morning over the Inner Hebrides and we had wonderful views of the Paps of Jura as well as Coll and Tiree, so the extra hour and a half on the journey provided much more than just the novelty of sitting on the tarmac at Islay.

Review: Artisan Roast – coffee paradise island in a sea of caffeine mediocrity

Artisan Roast, Broughton Street, Edinburgh 

One of the most challenging issues we face when leaving home for a trip is the wrench away from our beloved Izzo Alex Duetto II espresso machine. Discovering Artisan Roast has been delightful and is a great coffee comfort blanket for the wilderness days of enforced separation from our Izzo. Also with a cafe in Glasgow, we are secure in the knowledge that Artisan Roast will provide us with great coffee both east and west in central Scotland.

I need never endure the mass marketed non-taxpaying high street caffeine juggernauts with their multi-litre-buckets of insipid latte et al.  All this courtesy of the American model.  The words of Bill Hicks still resonate today; ‘Would you like 32 ounce or large?!’ I want to drink coffee, not drown in it.

The Artisan Roast cappuccino – archetypal coffee perfection

In both the Glasgow and Edinburgh Broughton Street shops, staff are eager to engage in discussions about coffee and genuinely care about the quality of each cup produced. Discussions have included helpful hints and tips from staff about pour to get the elusive foam emulsion that gives each cappuccino its distinctive mouthfeel. Artisan Roast master this in every cup and we have been fortunate to enhance our cappuccinos at home too, thanks to their advice.

There is usually a choice of single origin beans and a blend on offer, depending on what is currently in the grinder hoppers.  First I tried the blend, usually on offer for anyone coming in that asks for ‘a coffee’ – Janszoon espresso blend.  This contains Sumatran Mandeheling and Brazil Cooxupe. It offers a balanced, rich flavour, almost chocolatey.  The fruity element brought by the Brazilian beans only truly reveals itself in an espresso, as we found out when we took a pack of the beans home to try. This coffee is versatile and will stand up well whatever you cup of choice is, be it flat white or Americano.

I then had the Terrazu la Trinidad Costa Rican single origin bean in an espresso. This was described at breakfast in a cup, and it certainly lived up to the description, having a strong citrus tang and sweet edge.  This coffee, in my opinion, would not accommodate milk well but was a surprising, refreshing and distinctive espresso.

Chatting to the enthusiastic staff, we also discovered that Artisan Roast are developing their business and have employed baristas to push the quality of their roasts and blends to new levels.  A new website is being developed and this will include an online store.  An exciting prospect for me since I buy beans online.

Finally, we were offered an AeroPress coffee to try. One of the staff happened to be experimenting with the product. The AeroPress uses manual pressure to push finely ground coffee through a micro-filter, which is supposed to produce a smooth tasting coffee.  The coffee produced (on this occasion at least) had a delicate flavour and almost a tea-like quality.  This product may suit the home user who wants a quick and cheap solution to produce a quality cup of coffee.

AeroPress, picture courtesy of the AeroPress website